Preventative Mastectomies & Overcoming Rhetoric

The first thing I read this morning while in bed, covers pulled up to my neck, eyes squinting at my phone, was Angelina Jolie’s new op-ed that is taking the internet by storm: “My Medical Choice.”

When Sharon Osbourne had preventative double mastectomy surgery last fall, I was amazed. I was teaching a course themed around Reimagining the Normal and showed the article to my students. In the interview, Osbourne said, “I didn’t even think of my breasts in a nostalgic way, I just wanted to be able to live my life without that fear all the time.” If I’m not mistaken, Osbourne made the choice to have the mastectomy without the reconstructive surgery, which is a brave choice for any woman—particularly a celebrity in the spotlight. Which is why this morning, I was certain that I had misread the article stating Angelina Jolie—the ultra-woman of celebrity women—had chosen to have a double mastectomy.

What does it mean for an international sex symbol to choose to have her breasts removed, the very things that we often use to measure a woman’s femininity and sex appeal?

If nothing else, it’s certainly a bold move—a move that bucks the idea of the perfect and natural and untouched breasts and a move that might inspire some women to take similar measures. As I read the op-ed, though, I felt increasingly uneasy.

May 8th was the 4th anniversary of my mother’s death, and her birthday at the end of the month is now looming nearer. My mom had breast cancer in the early 1990s and underwent a single mastectomy and partial hysterectomy. Despite annual checkups, the doctors did not detect the ovarian cancer that she was diagnosed with in 2005. It was advanced stage, “been there for years,” they said. She died in 2009, a week before my college graduation.

When I was in college, I would occasionally drive my mom to her doctor’s appointments. One day, the doctor asked me if I planned on having kids. Flabbergasted by the question, I said I didn’t know. I was told that I should make up my mind soon; otherwise, I should consider having a full hysterectomy.

Every time I go to the doctor now, I get asked if I want to do the genetic screening. But I’m also told that if I do, and if I do have that gene, my insurance might drop me.

The fear, for me, is that even if I’m tested and carry the gene, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee me of anything. A family member’s sister found out that she carried the gene for ovarian cancer and very recently underwent a preventative hysterectomy. After the procedure, the doctor found traces of ovarian cancer cells, and she will be starting chemotherapy soon.

Jolie writes in the piece, “Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.” Cancer strikes fear into people’s hearts because it’s a fearful thing, and maybe this is why I take issue with this piece.

It’s the same overcoming narrative that we hear and see elsewhere. It’s the billboard on the side of I-690 that says “I overcame cancer. So can you.” It’s the idea that if I have a hysterectomy, I’ll be fine. It’s the idea that you have the power to get a preventative double mastectomy if you choose, not factoring in whether you have insurance, whether your insurance will cover it, and whether you will still be at risk for cancer—which Jolie openly admits can be caused from a number of factors.

Ad of a boy with one leg dressed in a baseball uniform, bat across his shoulders. The text reads "Threw Cancer a Curve Ball. Overcoming. Pass it on."
Images like this are meant to be inspirational but also imply that we must try harder to overcome, that it’s as simple as “throwing a curve ball.”

When I read things like this, they hurt because, with any rhetoric of overcoming, there is the reminder that some people do not overcome—positioning them as weaker, less able. People with advanced stage cancer don’t last long. My mom had 55+ chemotherapy treatments over four years and a full dose of radiation in late 2008. She was diagnosed a couple weeks before my high school graduation in 2005 and died a week before my college graduation in 2009.

When I read articles like this op-ed, I want to cry and punch things and roll around on the ground because overcoming rhetoric obscures the material realities of people who cannot and do not overcome cancer. The idea of “I did it and you can too” obscures the fact that my mom (and people like her) did everything in the books to try to beat it. That should not discredit their attempts and experiences.

Reflecting on her own children, Jolie writes, “It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was.” It’s the idea that you have to be as normal as humanly possible in order to make cancer seem as not-scary as possible. There are risks to reconstructive surgery, sure. My best friend’s mother had breast cancer when my friend was in elementary school. She had reconstructive surgery to appear more “normal,” and the cancer returned. She died.

But there’s also this larger notion that women must have their breasts in order to be women, to be “Mommy,” to be the same as always. My mom had a huge scar that ran across her chest, and it didn’t make her any less of a woman or mother. Instead, from a very young age, it imprinted in me the idea that I need to be careful about what I do, that I need to be careful about screenings and dietary choices and even where I choose to live, that I need to be sure all of my doctors know about my medical history.

It may sound silly, but I was shocked when I saw the tagline for this article because I thought, for a few minutes at least, that Angelina Jolie—the symbol of all that is woman—had a double mastectomy without the reconstructive surgery.

Jolie should be applauded for her decision because it’s a brave and smart decision, but this “I’m just like you” rhetoric obscures the fact that no, she’s not. I’m sure many women don’t know the preventative options available to them, but many women simply don’t have those options. And if they do, they may not have access to the resources and very best doctors that someone with Jolie’s capital surely does.

Women, as much as they possibly can, need to be educated (and educate themselves) about their bodies and what they can do to keep those bodies safe. These glossed-over stories about overcoming, however, can do more harm than they can good to an unknowing reader. It was disability activist Laura Hershey who wrote, “It is an uncomfortable truth … that actions which are intended to help a certain group of people may actually harm them” (230).

And the idea that women must maintain their breasts in order to appear “the same as always” is just as hurtful. When my mom was dying, you can bet I didn’t give two fucks about the scar across her chest or the ovaries missing from her pelvis. Women shouldn’t be expected to worry about saving their lives and still looking “good” and “normal” because cancer isn’t good and normal.

Life is more important than normal-looking breasts.


Hershey, Laura. “From Poster Child to Protestor.” Critical Encounters with Texts: Finding a Place to Stand. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2012. 229-42. Print.


8 thoughts on “Preventative Mastectomies & Overcoming Rhetoric

  1. I love everything about this. I think I’ve had issue with cancer rhetoric without actually understanding it or having a name for it ever since my mom was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic in 2009. She had a 6 month prognosis at best, and worked full time on chemo for two years. She moved to Pittsburgh by herself so that she could continue working and going to treatment with better doctors. I don’t see her as any less of a survivor because cancer ultimately won the war, and I want to set something on fire whenever Justin Beiber comes on the TV singing happy birthday to survivors c/o the American cancer society. I’ve also been tested for the (known) cancer genes since my mom’s sister, mother, and father have all had bouts with cancer, and I don’t have it, but that doesn’t make me feel safer. Do you have other resources on cancer rhetoric?

    1. Thanks for sharing, Bethany. I’ll have to think about the resources thing. I’ve written about this before but have never looked into whether other people are talking about it, too. I’ll look around and get back to you if I find out more.

  2. “But I’m also told that if I do, and if I do have that gene, my insurance might drop me.” You should ask your doctor about the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which prevents health insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums as a result of genetic testing. GINA also protects against genetic discrimination from employers, but not life insurance (unless the life insurance is through your employer).

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